Hong Kong Legal In-house Financial Services 2019 Mid-year Update

Written by Ansir Mahmood

Throughout this month we will be releasing a series of midyear market update articles where we ask our team heads to reflect on the main points raised in our 2019 Hong Kong Salary Survey & Guides released earlier in the year. This week we speak with Ansir Mahmood on the Hong Kong in-house legal (financial services) market. 

Ansir Mahmood has been with Aquis Search for over eight years and heads up an award-winning team of recruiters working with legal teams in banks and financial services organisations in Hong Kong and across Asia. The 2019 Hong Kong In-House Legal (Financial Services) Salary Survey & Guide was released back in January, in this article we ask Ansir if there have been any further changes in the market in the first half of the year.

The past 2 years funds, structured products and ISDA documentation skills have been hiring actively, is there any indication this will change over the next year or two? 
This hiring trend looks set to continue due to several factors. Firstly, there is a finite talent pool and some headcounts/ searches were legacy from previous years. Secondly, there has been a continual demand for such lawyers owing to the regulatory changes and following market reactions.

Finding talent in a competitive market has its challenges. In order to counter this, companies cast a wider net by occasionally looking at overseas markets to find professionals to ensure the demand is being met. This is especially true for roles that do not have local language and qualification requirements.

Have salary levels remained stable across the sector? Have there been any noticeable trends in specific areas?

Generally speaking, salary levels have been adjusted based on annual inflation rate changes but specialised functions such as funds and derivatives have seen additional increases as institutions decide to offer more monetary benefits in order to attract talent from private practice firms and from direct competitors.

At the beginning of the year we noted that hiring was more at the junior to mid-level as roles were coming available as teams grew, how is the market now for senior-level lawyers looking to move?

The number of senior-level openings has remained stable over the years as organisations seldom add new headcounts at that level. Only when there are newly set up organisations or emerging industries looking to bring in their first lead counsels do we see senior-level lawyers looking out for external opportunities. On a side note, sometimes we have also seen business-decision makers replacing an outgoing senior-level lawyer with someone less experienced because they believe it will be cost-effective to train these lawyers instead. This provides career growth opportunities to the junior lawyer and enables organisations to retain them for longer periods. 

How do lawyers feel about taking up interim or contract positions? 

We have seen specific situations where lawyers have opted to take up contract positions. In scenarios where legal professionals have had to take a break in their professional careers or were transitioning between locations. Lawyers with a stable full-time legal career would seldom opt of an interim or contract position. There are still lawyers, especially those who have stayed out of the market for several years or recently relocated to Hong Kong, who are interested in interim/contract openings, but as a rule, we find that lawyers only seek opportunities in this type of transitional situation rather than see it as a long-term option. 

How is the emerging Fintech market affecting demand for in-house lawyers in the financial services sector?

 Most fintech companies prioritise bringing in financial services lawyers because they have the existing market and product knowledge. As a result, a number of lawyers have successfully made the switch from traditional financial services providers to fintech firms over the past couple of years. Traditional banks have also injected more resources into developing their technology platforms hence they are also competing for the same pool of lawyers.  It is an interesting and constantly changing market. What advice would you give to lawyers looking to make a move in the next few months? 
With the in-house hiring drive beginning to slow down, lawyers will need to make sure they are prepared to be patient and wait until the start of next year for more vacancies to surface if their ideal role is not available now. 
For more information on the market please contact us and to download a copy of any of 2019 Salary Survey & Guides click here.